You are on page 1of 48

Digital Death


Digital Death is the title of the

first thesis of this series;
‘Missing Bits’ is an apt addition to
this title, as it refers both to
computer ‘bits’ which have been lost
i.e. ‘missing’ but also to the fact
that a person may be emotionally
‘missing’ their lost ‘bits’
(of information or memory.)

This title also subtly informs the

reader that this book has been written
with the purpose of extending my
thesis by covering any bits missing
from previous work.

Stacey Pitsillides
Introduction, 1

1. The Pet Cemetery, 5 7. Destruction of a

Hard Disk, 37
2. The Missing, 9
8. Living Archives, 42
3. The Waiting E-mail,
13 9. The Ex-Box, 45

4. Grief Goes Public, 10. Museum of the Self,

16 52

5. I am...Record, 24 11. Splitting of the

Digi-self, 61
6. Share Your
Emotacons, 30 12. Sci-Fi and the Way
Forward, 68
physical digital

meet R in location 1
exchange details e-mail Re: 1
chat, drink, sing e-mail Re: reply 1
Facebook comment on status
Scype messanger chat
Facebook invite to location 2

call C and invite accept invetation to location

to location 2 2

google maps: find location 2

“When we change the arrive C meets R

plan travel and times

excited tweet about going

way we communicate,
to location 2
location 2 is great!
C/R dance and pose.
take photographs

we change society”1 facebook status update

put up gallery of pictures

on Facebook/ Twitter

bump into J and arrange J comments saying we should

to go to location 2 catch up!

call E, F, K to join E creates facebook

invite, group V all
return to location 2
chatting about it next taged in 10 pictures
day in uni status update promising
friends suggest going to to never drink again
the pub for a drink
after classes

Figure 1:
One week documented and divided into
digital and physical interactions.
1 2
The way we communicate Throughout ‘{Digital Death} Missing
Bits’ I will begin to explore this
determines everything: claim1 through the examination of
a collection of both personal and
From who we talk to on a regular
basis to how we act and document our Narratives and life experiences.
lives. Even the way we feel is, to
a certain extent, constantly being The narratives that feature here,
mediated through our communication have been specifically selected, as
systems and online- behaviours. I find they allow me to uncover and analyse
this particularly interesting when a cross section of digital cultures,
considering the social and cultural adding body and emotional depth to my
implications of Death in the Digital thesis.
This vantage point will allow
Throughout my own life, the the reader a unique opportunity
ways people communicate and our to peep into some of the varied
communication systems have changed public’private’ reactions, practices
vastly. They have even changed and rituals surrounding death in our
throughout the two-year period of my digitally augmented world.
research into Digital Death2 . The way
we communicate has a knock on effect
to everything it means to be human.
Not excluding the way, we both view
and experience:

loss, death and


3 4
The pet cemetery is one of the first
examples of ‘new culture’ I discovered
within my initial exploratory research
of Second Life3.

By immersing myself within a virtual

community and taking on a new
identity, Luma Ashdene, I was able
to experience and document my own
reactions to this new system of
communication. By chatting, talking
and interviewing residents of Second

1. Life I became interested, in both

the relationships they had formed and
how members of this community dealt
with losses, both in the physical and
virtual space.

I was lucky enough to meet the creator

THE PET of this particular Second Life ‘Pet

Cemetery’, screen name: Silverax
Greenwood. My question at the time was

CEMETERY ‘why would a person want to visualize

death in a virtual space?’

Over the period of my research one of

Silverax’s answers has stayed with me:

“But they feel ease,

they feel they can have
And it is this ability, to ‘feel ease’
and ‘allow grief’ that gives the
‘grave’ whether physical or virtual,
its appeal. The ‘grave’ allows you
to exchange a small piece of the
ownership of that which you have lost
for something lasting to mark the
event, both in your mind and your
surroundings. To rest, in time, not
only a lost loved one but your own

Consequently, this coordinate, in

time and space becomes not so much a
place to experience loss, as a place
to trigger memory. You know of the
grave’s existence and therefore, in a
small the way the continued existence
of that person in this world. You also
‘know’ that if you visit ‘them’ again,
you will have to remember, without
evidential documentation or imagery.

This again leads me to consider web

cemeteries, which despite my own
personal surprise are not a new

In fact “the earliest Figure 2:

Web cemeteries [were] The Pet Cemetery: Second Life: Avatar:
Luma Ashdene in preying position.
created in 1995”4
Only thirty five years after the
creation of the Internet itself.

6 7
These early cemeteries “provided
simple e-mail forms of memorial
submission.”4 This highlights that
despite the existence of physical
graves there is, arguably, still a
user-need for its virtual counterpart.

What do virtual graves

offer that physical
graves don’t?
To begin to understand this question,
it must fist be broken down into
various parts.

It must be taken into consideration,
how death itself manifests in the
digital world? What new and old,
forms of ritual and culture surround
it? The new ‘needs’ and cultures of
contemporary society, that would
make virtual graves and memorials
particularly attractive? And the
unavoidable circumstances in which
physical memorization is impossible
and therefore virtual memorization
becomes the primary form of

In the modern age we all too familiar Whereas the e-mail we do receive, we
with e-mails appearing in our in-box. simply refer to, because of e-mail’s
We sort them, log them and reply to quality of self-documentation, we
them. need not remember it. However the
‘missing’ e-mail could be the most
important piece of our life-jigsaw and
However what happens yet as perceived by photographer David
when this system breaks Farrell “how [can] you photograph [or
document] ‘the intangible presence of
down and an e-mail absence’?”5

you were expecting to Which leads me also to question

come does not? How whether it is indeed necessary to
have such a complete documentation or
do we deal with this evidence of every life event? Does
having such independent communication
absence in the age of systems leave us vulnerable? and when
information excess? communication inevitably breaks down
how do we cope with this loss? We
How many days before we start to live in an age where “we have virtual
question its lack of presence and acquaintances, virtual colleagues and
construct narratives around the even virtual friends. If they die, how
‘missing bits’? Eventually, the lack are we to be informed? Do we have a
of communication becomes a form of right to be informed?”2
communication in itself ‘it says
something.’ It begins to tell a story, There is currently very little info-
or a range of alternating stories. structure in existence to deal with,
when and how, to inform virtual loved
These stores are the non-documented, ones of death. Second Life’s ‘Linden
the undocumented and therefore in a Lab’ states that “if there is a
rare instance of digitality, a ‘pure’ legally binding will and testament
memory. Strangely enough, we tend to they will divide assets and inform
remember more vividly the e-mail we loved ones in-world of your passing.”3
did not get, perhaps because it is However in order to do this Linden Lab
annoying or because it hurts to be requires: a testamentary letter or
left waiting. other appropriate order, a copy

9 10
of the death certificate, a copy of
the will and a copy of a government-
He related that despite
issue ID sufficient to identify you. this indefinancey,
This tedious process would perhaps
prevent many people from attempting he would have liked
to inform virtual friends. However
one must ask, if this process were to
some way to honour her
be implemented, how far is Linden Lab because at least to
responsible for the way these virtual
friends receive this ‘bad news’ and him, she was lost.6
the aftermath of their bereavement.

An interviewee, Francesco d’orazio, Farrell refers to this ‘loss’ of the

brings relevance to the involvement missing, in Ireland, as the “poignant
of Linden Labs in the informing and and… haunting ‘diaspora of the
bereavement of their community as he disappeared’”5. I believe there are
relates a close experience of death strong parallels in the uncertainty of
in Second Life. Francesco had a friend grief when regarding both the physical
in Second Life, a friend he had known and virtual ‘missing.’
for around two to three years. One day
‘she walks up to him’ and tells him So I begin to consider,
that she has “a hole in her brain” and
then shortly afterwards, disappears. How do I as a designer or critical
thinker begin to ask these
Francesco confided that at the time, poignant questions to the networks
he felt he had no option but to and communication systems about
try not to think about it, for him their responsibility for both
there could be no resolution, only the friendships and losses they
assumptions. Francesco considered his facilitate?
friend to be ‘missing,’ this ‘missing’
could be explained, on the one hand by
death. However being ‘missing’ from
Second Life, could also simply mean
that she decided to do something else
and communication broke down.

11 12

THE Sometimes the e-mail is

there, waiting for you.

-------- Original Message --------

From: {…} > This is the e-mail you do not want

On Behalf Of {…} Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:44 PM to receive. It contains the news we
dread to hear, the moment we see it’s
well-phrased caption meshed into our
To: TCCC List Subject: [Tccc] A very sad news crowded in-box, we panic: “A very sad
news.” Our brain begins to go over
Dear Friends, Unfortunately I have to break you with the saddest all the possibilities of what and who
of news. Last Wednesday {…}, esteemed scientist and beloved to it can be but at least we have been
many of us {…} passed away. He was diagnosed cancer two years warned, the first barrier has been
ago, but nobody was expecting the situation to degenerate so fast. broken.
Those closer to him saw his courage and bravery in pursuing
research, and life, in spite of the situation. He was a Fellow of It then goes on, ‘Dear Friends,’ this
IEEE nominated by ComSoc. He leaves the wife {…}, two adult term implies that the group that have
sons, {…}, and two teenage girls, {…}. The funeral will be in his received this e-mail are a collective,
home Kibbutz of {…}, Israel, {...}. Sadly {…} a community even and that they can
rely on each other for support. It
also suggests that anyone receiving
{…} On Sat, Dec 12, 2009 at 5:20 AM, {…} wrote: this e-mail has the right to receive
this very personal information. The
This is truly very sad. {…} was an outstanding young engineer fact that it is sent in the form of a
and scientist and an enthusiastic supporter of Comsoc activities. ‘chain mail’ further links the group
He was also a caring friend. He will be sorely missed. Professor and results in the linking of the
{…} ‘original news’ to all responses.

Figure 3:
An example of an e-mail sent out
informing collaborators and colleagues
of the death of a prominent professor.

14 15
DIGITAL LIFE - considering sharing in communities

generalize (+)

GOES (+) people sharing an
(0,0) 1

(in a community)

Figure 4:
A diagram depicting the varying scales
of group forming.

“Loss is a personal affair … it is private emotion, experienced only
based on the particular persons within a close network of friends and
perception of an event. It can be family who knew the person. Diana
actual, fantasized or anticipated, was a public figure, ‘the people’s
conscious or unconscious. It includes princess,’ this made people feel like
biological, social and psychological they could share in this loss and
factors.”7 publicly express the grief they felt.
Through this shared emotion, a bond
Loss is something we all encounter was created within the British public,
and have experience of throughout our for a couple of days millions of
lives, and although the degree and way people shared an experience and felt
in which we experience loss differ, it like they had a right ‘to grieve’.
is an experience we are familiar with.
Because of the bi-polarity of loss, “Many people across the country
it can simultaneously act, as both brought [flowers] and placed them
an alienating and collaborative force along with very personal messages
within society. written on attached cards ... A
single flower with a message ... read
The death of Princess Diana is one ‘Beautiful Lady, Rest in Peace, With
of my first memories of someone very Love, Sam (A homeless friend.)’ “8
famous dying. If i’m honest I will
admit to remembering more about The Through this example we see the vast
Princess’s death, then her life and varied collection of people who
itself. Many people refer to Diana’s felt genuine loss and engaged in
death as being: communal grief. Public grief can also
be considered as a

A day that will remain

in the ‘memory of “way of rebuilding
the British public community”6
forever.’ through grief we feel a connection to
each other and associate with each
In England grief is generally a other in an emotional way.
17 18
Figure 5: Figure 6:
The reaction of the British public to An ongoing experimental ‘Diana Avatar’
the death of Princess Diana. in Second Life, meant as a provocation
to discover what would people’s
reaction would be to the appearance of
the dead princess?
19 20
Public grief has taken place for as global audience.”9 Then once the news
long as we have had community, to look is initially announced, it is filtered
at the shift in ritual practice in the down through the various social
modern age I will consider the recent networks and announced to the world
death of pop star: Michael Jackson via individuals acting on personal
(1958-2009). Michael Jackson is impulse (many to many) through ‘status
another well-known example of public updates’ and ‘tweets’
grief but unlike Diana, flowers were
not the main feature of his memoriam. Even in somewhere as niche as my own
network of Facebook friends around
The death Michael Jackson marked a 70 percent of friends commented on
landmark in digital culture because Michael Jackson’s passing, many
so much of the public grieving, lamenting this loss in some way,
remembrance and memorialization took either by donating their status as
place in a digital environment. a tribute e.g. “RIP King of Pop” or
The online space has allowed for perhaps by tagging their favourite
“ridiculously easy group-forming.”1 song on You Tube. The Internet allowed
for an almost viral spread of tribute
This is important because it and the immortalization of Michael
highlights people’s desire to be “part Jackson, who will not only remain in
of a group that shares, cooperates, the memory of the public but in their
or acts in concert”1 the online space processors and networks.
has allowed people to unite in their
grief and form strong, if transient The presence of the internet in this
bonds, with others around them. memorialization, meant that anyone
could quickly and cheaply announce
The Internet has also become the to the world, that they too, were
informant. Whereas with Diana the TV sad that he is gone. And therefore
was the main source of information, through this example it becomes
in the case of Michael Jackson, many obvious that collaborative grieving is
people discovered the news of his no longer focused within a specific
death through online sources, as these community or even a specific nation,
sources were faster then conventional now people from all over the world
methods of press and have the ability have the opportunity to group together
to easily “announce [and disseminate and feel that moment of connection
the news of] deaths to a potentially (togetherness.)

21 22
Thus we see that “while
[social network’s]
key technological
features are fairly
constant, the cultures
that emerge around
SNS’s are”10 constantly
A more niche example of this concerns
Facebook’s occasional role as a method
of informing friends of personal loss.
This experience of personal loss was

I AM...
shared, when friends were informed
through a facebook status update that
a couple who were expecting a baby had
“lost the bub this week end.”

Within this status it was also

mentioned that [she] thought this
was the easiest way of informing
everybody of her loss. Friends within
the community reacted with sympathy,
resulting in the sharing of stories of
their own personal losses and offering
support and prayers. She was also able
to inform the community on days when
she didn’t “feel like talking” through
her status.

Lately I have been thinking a lot
about digital sharing, what does it
what mean to ‘share’ a piece of yourself
. with a collective and for there to
. should i .
do??? be a perfect record of each of these
‘sharings’. How has this record
changed the way people interact,
argue, get even and even proclaim

By leaving behind our ‘flawed’ and

very ‘human’ memory, I have begun to
wonder if in the quest for immortality
good m (of information) are we are eroding
mori our power to forget? Forgetting is
d me something which has, throughout time,
protected us both from an overload of
information and our own past.

Before digital memory, if you had an

argument with a friend; they would
have their side, you would have your
side. Eventually the fight would be
forgotten. There was no proof as to
who was right and who was wrong.

However if you have an argument with

a friend on Skype, your words have a
real chance of ‘coming back’ to haunt
you. Your friend can now come back
to you three weeks, three months or
even three years later with your exact
words. They can even have shown these
words to various third parties and
have received comments and opinions.
The most recent public example of

24 25
this being an e-mail, examined and
displayed within Sophie Calle’s
exhibition, “Talking to Strangers”11

The appearance of this document, this

non-temporal bit of evidence, means
that we can no longer be spontaneous
or flippant with our wording, as each
word uttered within the digital realm
has consequences, not just for today
but (potentially) forever.
information hardly ever
“Forgetting plays a central role in most regularly
human decision-making. It lets us act accessed information

in time, cognizant of but not shackled

by, past events. Through perfect option to delete.

memory we may lose a fundamental human

capacity - to live and act firmly in
the present”12

As we inevitably live more of lives

digitally and have access (digitally)
to a perfect memory of both our own
and other people personal histories.
Time (and our lives) move on, so there
will undoubtedly be an accumulation of
digital paraphernalia that we may
Figure 7:
wish to forget. Is a map of our information usage,
this map could appear in the form
of a widget. It is an easy way of
Perhaps as a designer I should begin allowing users to look and consider
to think about how I could program their information in entirety, rather
temporarily, or even decay, into then engaging with each ‘bit’ when
digital information. necessary.
26 27
If data not accessed for
(user allocated period)data
begins to erase itself

warning: digital information

about to erase

Digital Long Term Hard Disk

Memory (storage) =

Data accessed

Digital Short Desktop

Term Memory = If data not accessed for
(user allocated period)data
moves to hard disk

Figure 8:

Is an initial thought model which

would allow information, which was not
being regularly, used to be stored in

a repository (hard disk). Information

within this repository would begin to
decay if not used for long periods
of time. This would force the user
to engage with the information they
wanted to keep and not store things
simply for fear of losing it.

:-( :-( :-(
Lately I have begun to ask the
question what does this :-( symbol
actually mean? Does a typographic ‘sad
face’ give you, as the person reading
my text, any indication as to how I’m
feeling? When you see this standard

:-(:-( :-( :-(

symbol, do you imagine my face or
consider it deeply? Is it possible to
empathize with a smiley, does seeing
it make you concerned about a friend?
Is it enough to make you want to call
them and find out why they are sad?

:-­( :-( :-(

Can a smiley or in this case perhaps
a ‘frowny’ convey different messages
simply by using different type‘face’s?
The definition of an emoticon ”is a
textual expression representing the

:-( :-(
face of a writer’s mood or facial
expression...They are often used to
alert a responder to the tenor or
temper of a statement, and can change
and improve interpretation of plain

:-(:-( :-(
The question is though, are these
symbols actually improving the
quality of plain text or are they
simply creating further levels of
generalization? Emoticons do not
provide intonation, they do not

:-­( :-(
create hierarchy. The text we read is
still only text and we the reader,
still have no way of knowing ‘how’
it must be read and whether we are
misinterpreting it’s content.

31 32
Evidently emoticons are useful in “19-­‐Sep-­‐82  11:44    Scott  E    Fahlman    :-­‐)
everyday conversation, when I am
neither feeling exceptionally ‘happy’ From:  Scott  E    Fahlman  <Fahlman  at  Cmu-­‐20c>
or ‘sad.’ However I would question
whether in the delivery of something
as emotionally sensitive as the news I  propose  that  the  following  character  sequence  for  joke  
of a death, whether something as markers:
simple as ;-( could convey anything of                
value? :-­‐)
So therefore when we compare it to
“meaning in real-world chat messages
Read  it  sideways.    Actually,  it  is  probably  more  econom-­‐
[which depend] not only on the words ical  to  mark
we use but also on how we express things  that  are  NOT  jokes,  given  current  trends.    For  
meaning through nonverbal cues. this,  use
Online chat is simple, direct, and                
unrestrained. While it contains many :-­‐(        “15    
of the elements of face-to-face
conversation, it differs from ordinary
chat in that it is a

textual representation Figure 9:

of conversation.”14 An interesting narrative which sheds
some light on the origins of internet
emoticons and the reason behind their

33 34
How can a symbol on a page become a
gesture of love giving? Does having
a generic ‘kiss symbol,’ such as
this, actually prevent people from
talking about emotions which they find
difficult? Why should one spend time
describing how they feel when a couple
of well placed x’s on the end an
e-mail or a text message does it for
do you feel love you? Does this ‘x’ make it easier to
or a kiss? avoid saying what you actually feel?

35 36


For a digital secret to exist one must
consider where best it would have the
ability to remain undiscovered. The
digital world in its ever-increasing
quest to provide people with the
power ‘to share’ has become difficult
to confide in. Our most intimate
moments and secrets would perhaps be
better served if they resided in the
physical, and destructible and yet the
digital world does undoubtedly hold

Computer, How are we to keep

‘these’ parts of our
can you keep a digital digital lives away from
secret???? the world?
A conversation with a Funeral Director
led me to think about this question in
more detail. The conversation revolved
around the story of a man who came to
her knowing he was going to die. The
man was there to make arrangements
for his funeral and one of the things
he was most concerned about during
their meeting, was the destruction of
his computer (hard disk.) He revealed
to her, that there was information
hidden on his hard disk that could
potentially hurt his family and
friends and therefore it was important
to him that it too was ‘laid to rest’.

38 39
This led me to consider, are there
certain parts of a hard disk that one
“Like late Heidegger,
would want to ‘die’ with them and recent Borgmann sees
if, contrasting the example, one was
unaware of their impending death who that the direction
would be entrusted to take on the
burden of this ‘killing’?
technology is taking
will eventually get
If a friend or family member were
to ask you to end the life of their rid altogether of
information, how would we go about
it? What would be the most appropriate
ritual for the destruction of this
information and would there be an However in opposition to this, in the
emotional repercussion to being digital world, we are always finding
responsible for the ‘destruction,’ new ways of ‘saving’ and ‘retrieving’
of someone’s personal information? information. We no longer spend
Perhaps you would even be tempted to time considering why we need this
look through it before destroyed it information, our time is instead spent
was destroyed..? sorting, cataloguing and retrieving.

There is also the life span and This is “the difference between the
mortality of a person’s personal modern library culture and the new
computer to consider, I wanted to information-retrieval culture…
engage with the fact that within the
digital world we find it difficult,
if not impossible, to get rid of (or
lose) information. We are all, to a
More has changed then
certain extent digital hoarders. In the move from control
the digital world we have, both the
ability and the ease to be hoarders. of objects to the
In the physical world space becomes
both expensive and uncomfortable, if
flexibility of storage
we never throw out a possession, so and access.”16
one has to select items carefully and
only keep what is really important.

40 41

We are currently living, we go about
our lives, we have experiences, feel
feelings, observe and make metal
comments on the world around us,
generally us ‘living’ our lives goes
unrecorded and is often un-recordable.
Therefore it could be suggested that
we, as individuals, are in fact the
most complete archive of ourselves.
The easiest way for you to find out
information about me is to ask.
As Derrada accurately observes in this of our expectations. This can be
statement, observed when Barthes emotionally
recalls sorting through old photos of
“It goes without saying, if one his mother.
could put it that way, that Freud’s
phantom does not respond. That is His frustration with this incomplete
at least how things appear. But can form of memory is evident when he
this be trusted? In promising secrecy states:
for a virtual response which keeps
us waiting, which will always keep
us waiting, the signatory of this “I never recognized her
monologue lets it be understood that
Freud would never say in
except in fragments… I
public, for example in a book and in would have recognized
what is destined to become a public
archive, what he thinks in truth her among a thousands
secretly”17 of other women, yet I
How does experiencing something live, did not “find” her”18
differ to experiencing it through
a document, archive or digital The live memory is easier to trigger
mediation? Does attending a live as there are many things within our
event affect the way we remember the every day environment which have the
occasion? As embodied beings, we have ability to ‘bring the memory back.’
senses at hand and these senses are
constantly bringing back information Therefore when considering death and
which is stored away as part of the more importantly, in this instance,
‘whole’ picture becoming a memory. the virtualization of death rituals.
This ‘embodied memory’ is then easier
to recall at a later date, then say an A physical or embodied ‘event’ to mark
e-mail which is a solidly text based a loved ones death, would obviously
form of communication. (where possible) provide a greater
finality and give the person a fuller
Even a photo, which is said to chance of accepting the death and
‘capture’ a person often falls short moving on.

43 44

Figure 10:
Placing the disk into a safe, out of
sight, out of mind.

The image above shows a snapshot of

a person’s life. This person is a
friend of mine. This friend, like most
people, has been through a break-up.
The couple in question no longer see
or talk to each other.
They are both trying to move on but When losing a loved one you may
the digital world persists. Hidden not want to
among the countless documents,
movies, music and other digital data
are memory triggers. A problem had
presented itself:
‘put them away in a
“Whenever I look on my computer I
can’t help but stumble upon pictures
of my ex, I don’t want to get rid of I have begun to think about potential,
them but I just can’t look at them physical and digital, resting places
anymore.” which would allow you the space to
grieve but also the opportunity to
Which, for this very particular case (in time) celebrate a loved ones
immediately led to a simple solution. information (memories).
I told her to delete all the images of
her ex from her computer and put them My own thoughts on the matter, were
instead on a disk and put the disk further iterated through a statement I
somewhere safe and out of sight. received from a palliative care nurse
regarding a message left on Facebook
Through this simple example I have in memoriam, following the sudden
begun to see the impact of having a death of a close relative.
chaotic but perfect digital memory.
It has made me see the data within
my computer as complex ‘bits’ of “I like knowing that
information which inevitably link me
to the memories, events and documents what I wrote is stored
of my life. somewhere and would
This is a simple example, as it is feel sad if it were
something that most people can relate
to (losing a relationship). However deleted - It would
the example becomes much more complex
when one considers how to deal with
be like deleting her
the information of someone who has memory.”19

46 47
This very personal account which I
received, in turn triggered my own
memory, reminding me of a short
passage from Roland Barthes Camera

“In this glum desert, suddenly a

specific photograph reaches me; it
animates me, and I animate it… The
photograph is in no way animated
(I do not believe in “lifelike”
photographs), but it animates me: this
is what creates every adventure.”18

In this short extract Barthes has

identified some of what makes this
type of memento: photographs, old
possessions and even writing, so
valuable to us. As stated previously
these possessions are not valuable
because we hope to ‘find’ our
loved one there. The value of such
possessions is intrinsic, deeper and
imbedded within ourselves; for it is
not the object or even the person we
seek to find. What we seek, sometimes
without even realizing it, is the
myriad of lost and buried memories
within the swirl of our own head.
This has led me, as a designer to
consider Heirlooms as a rich and
We are thus “animated” emotionally embedded starting point.
Heirlooms could become a sentimental
by such memories and site for the storage digital memories
“animate” the memento. and events, an ‘object’ people could
either carry with them or visit when
they wanted to remember.
48 49

Figure 11 Figure 12
50 51
10. .
. .. .
. .

Figure 13:
What are digital remains and where are
they to be ‘housed’?
What happens when most is constantly in danger of becoming
unreadable. In the fast paced world of
of human memory is digital data, new methods of storing
and recording, are constantly being
stored digitally? discovered and put into practice.
Therefore to keep our knowledge
Human beings have always dreamed of banks updated and to avoid losing
a day when it would be possible to any valuable data, there must be an
access information and memory at the equal rise in technologies for digital
click of a button. restoration and upkeep.

In 1945 Vannevar Bush imagined an In 1999 (58 years later) Microsoft

“encyclopedia Britannica [which] research lab started ‘MyLifeBits,’ a
could be reduced to the volume of project set about to animate Bush’s
a matchbox. A Library of a million dream of a “Memex,”20 a device capable
volumes [which] could be compressed of creating of complete record of a
into one end of a desk… [and that] the human life.
material for a microfilm Britannica
would cost a nikel, and it could be “Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime’s
mailed anywhere for a cent”20 worth of articles, books, cards,
CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos,
52 years later in November 1993 pictures, presentations, home movies,
Michael Gruber questioned: videotaped lectures, and voice
recordings... He is now paperless,
“What if all your books and is beginning to capture phone
calls, IM transcripts, television, and
had only a twenty-year radio.“22

life span before you In the year 2000 J.K Rowling published
had to make copies of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”
which features, one of the characters,
them?”21 storing his own memories in an
external pool (a pensive.) I mention
Gruber is referring of course to the this fictional example because I think
great problem of digital information there is an interesting parallel to be
storage, the fact that digital data made.

53 54
The ‘invention’ of this magical device
shows how human the allure of ‘perfect
memory’ that can be re-visited at any
chosen time is. I find it interesting
that what we imagine to be fantasy and
magic is in fact not only possible
but quite normal in the modern age.
One can now store their memories in
an external pool (computer) and even
invite other people to share in some
of their experiences. These ‘bits’ of
memory, stored in their ‘pools,’ are
shielded from the danger of natural
decay in the physical world (and the
human condition of forgetting.)

However throughout this meander

through the past, I cannot help but

‘What is to be done
with this mass of
Figure 14: information once we
A scene from “Harry Potter and the have spent our lives
Goblet of Fire.” Professor Dumbledore
removing one of his memories. accumulating it?’
How do we begin to edit down a
lifetime’s worth of information,
making it relevant, both to our loved
ones and society? I also question
whether this frantic gathering and
saving of information is a reflection
on our culture’s in-ability to deal
55 56
with loss and mortality? Is ‘digital virtual world, rubbish and buried
memory,’ simply a modern search bodies are an archaeologist’s
for the fabled philosopher’s stone bread and butter, so therefore, is
(immortality) and if our information disregarded digital information in the
does get passed down as ‘digital digital world.
remains’ then have we in some way
achieved this goal?
This information has
Nowadays we tend to keep information
simply for the sake of keeping it
the potential to
(because we can) or because we are provide a detailed
afraid of losing something we might
need? I question whether this really account of our present
is a good enough reason for it’s
existence? This is further enhanced
digital society and
by the “base capabilities of tools culture: ‘Digital
like Flickr [which] reverse the old
order of group activity, transforming Heritage’
“gather then share” into “share then
gather”.”1 To consider Digital Heritage, we must
first consider the amount and type
Therefore, when thinking about of data typically being inputted into
‘Digital Death’ (and the potential social networks; including photos,
deletion of digital data) popular music, films etc. I question,
where information relating to ones
digital life should, or could exist,
including after death? (In other words
one must consider the what its context should be?)
relevance of ‘shared’ Should it be placed in a digital
data to our historical museum, at a funeral or in a
historical archive? I plan to develop
and sociological methods which consider how one would
futures. begin to manage this mass of data once
it has been recorded and who would
Regarding archiving, in the non- be responsible for the collecting,
archiving, updating, and curating, of
57 58
this ‘database’ of people’s social
networks. However, if it were to be
completed, this resource would allow
historians, anthropologists and even
family members to literally look back
in time and examine a specific moment
of history, pristine and in perfect

One suggestion by WELL info-maven Hank

Roberts was the creation of a ‘museum
of information’. Roberts argues
the relevance of this information
being placed into a museum because
museum “collections are spotty and
odd sometimes, because whenever
people went to look for anything,
they brought back ‘everything else
interesting.’ And that’s the only way
to do it, because it always costs too
much to get info on demand - a library
makes everything available and throws
out old stuff; a museum has lots of
stuff tucked away as a gift to the

Already it is possible to “Google

or look up in Wikipedia hundreds of
thousands of the dead”9 however what
results from this unorganized cluster
of narratives of a persons life?

What do you learn about a person by

simply Googling them?

Figure 15
59 60

Do family and
friends know the
full extent of our
digital selves?

How do digital artefacts engage and
enrich a person’s digital identity?

An experiment was undertaken in

which four elements of a person’s
digital self (a random selection of
Facebook photos, avatar screen shots,
a screenshot of their inbox and a
screenshot of their desktop) were
separated and given to four separate
groups (of around ten individuals) to
analyse and discover any information
they could about who “this person

The results yielded some interesting


Those with the Facebook photos

‘discovered’ qualitative information
and reported this person to be a
young, female, art or design, full
time student.
This person is This person is

Their proof was that she appeared to

be young and trendy, attended a lot of
parties and appeared in hot spots in
East London, wearing Tatty Divine.

Another group were presented with

screen shots of an avatar. They
‘discovered’ that this person was a
teenage boy, possibly around 14, as
the female avatar depicted what they
termed to be ‘an idealized version of
a woman.’ Figure 16
62 63
The group whose job it was to analyse
the person’s inbox ‘discovered’ that
this person was middle aged man. Their
reasoning for believing this was
‘his’ multiple e-mails from companies
regarding business opportunities and
time saving strategies.

The last group were given a screenshot

of the person’s desktop; this led them
to ‘discover’ that this person was a
young female designer, they reasoned
this because she had a feminine
vintage print as her desktop wallpaper
This person is
and the mac desktop contained various
design programs. They also discovered
through many icons, her interest
in craft and tattoos and reasoned
that she is thinking of starting a
business, as icons containing business
plans and strategies littered the

The groups were all surprised when

it was relieved that each of these
sources were each an element of the
This person is same person’s digital persona.

The results of this experiment makes

one wonder how much we actually know
about a person if all we have to go on
is one source/part of their digital
identity? It also proves that if we
are to begin using digital data as
‘digital historical artefacts’ we must
Figure 17 consider how reliable each source is.

64 65
And how many sources we must evaluate
in order to get valid results.
Furthermore this study questions
whether the digital self should be
split or if must be kept whole to give
useful qualitative data? Moreover,
does the de-contextualization of
digital data provide a flawed or false

“Communication media and the

historical development of inequality
and power have expanded the role of
the dead from the family to wider
communities, states, and even the 20

entire world…whereas the oral, and

especially in hunter gatherer,
societies, the role of the dead in
society is predictable, i.e. limited
within the family to ancestors of a
particular gender, today the role of
the dead is much more variable, and
subject to change”9

As seen above it is evident that

throughout the ages both narratives
and objects have played a role in
keeping the memory of ancestors
and important people alive. In the
digital age we can all join in this
form of immortality. Our information, 2004 198

image and writings have an equal 2001

potential of remaining online and
being ‘rediscovered.’ “Through digital
memory… [we are surveyed] not just in
every corner but also across time.”12 Figure 18
66 67
So far “{Digital Death} Missing
Bits,” has examined, commented
on and compared with notions of
popular theorists, a collection of
thoughts, personal narratives and
life experiences. The aim of which; to
further my analytical and emotional
understanding of emerging cultures and
practices surrounding Death within the
Digital World.

12. This analysis, of both anecdotal

and experiential ‘life events,’ is
ultimately relevant both to myself (as
curious observer and theorist) and
to my practise, in which I ultimately
seek both to highlight particular

SCI-FI nuances of digital culture and

through design, suggest new concepts,
structures and systems.

AND THE I would like to take the opportunity

to contrast two examples from pop-
culture; science fiction films. I

WAY FORWARD believe these examples will enrich

my notion of digital death and allow
me to use my collection of real life
events to consider how one may begin
to design for the future.

The two films I have chosen to cross

evaluate were both released in 2004
and run along parallel themes,
both broadly considering peoples
relationship to memory.

{1}The Final Cut23 {2}Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind24
69 70
{1} The Final Cut is a film which
need for memories not to be tainted.
By looking at this audio-visual
considers what the world would be like
life document do we run the risk of
if we had the option to implant a ‘Zoe
‘losing’ our own memory of past events
chip’ in our baby’s head. This chip
and recalling only the document?
would then record every second of life
through the person’s own eyes. Upon
In another scene one the cutters
the person’s death this chip would
innocently reveals a fatal flaw in
then be removed, edited by a ‘cutter,’
the system of ‘rememory,’ she states
in accordance to the wishes of the
“we have to make story decisions,
family and used within a ‘rememory’.
otherwise there will be no rememory.”23
This led me to consider all forms
The characters within this film,
of archive and on-line memory and
consider this a way of preserving
question who can make these ‘story’
important memories. In one of the
decisions, who is qualified to make
scenes the cutter asks the bereaved
that choice? And how does the sewing
family “do you recall any moments with
together of memories (or information)
your daughter?...I need you, your
change or give false images of who
family to choose those moments you
this person actually was?
want to keep.”23
There are also many cases where people
However some of the characters are
within the film use the system of
seen, throughout the film, to rebel
‘Rememory’ to literally edit their
against these sentiments.
lives. One character claims, “my
husband was a great man...he deserves
“I couldn’t take it, to be remembered as a great man...
I’ve seen rememories where the cutters
I just couldn’t stay, were careless; they had no respect for
because it wasn’t, it the dead.”23

wasn’t him and I wanted This brings home the idea that having
a ‘rememory’ is not for the person
to remember him my who is dead, it is instead a chance
way.”23 to give the living, the ability to
construct the narrative of their loved
ones life, the life they would have
This statement reiterates the human
71 72
liked to have and to erase all the service. Clem, one of the main
bad memories with powerful images characters “decided to erase [her X]
and cinematography, that will remain almost as a lark.”24
lodged in their brain and eventually
inhabit the place of old ‘real’ Throughout the film, as you live out
memories, creating a person who in ‘Joel’s’ soon to be erased memories,
death has become exactly who they you are constantly being led to
wanted them to be. Both publicly and question whether it is better to
personally. forget an episode of your life because
it is painful or to consider that
perhaps, the most painful memories of
“These implants destroy our lives are also probably the most
personal history, valued and valuable?

therefore all history”23 Characters who believe in ‘Lucuna’

defend it, saying, “to let people
If every person’s personal history is begin again, it’s beautiful.”24 However
to be selected, curated and edited. as the film progresses it becomes
When we look back a hundred years from clear that all characters become
now, what will we see? caught up in either questioning the
ethics of this company or abusing
their position of power.
{2} Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind is a film centred The main character in particular
around a fictional company, ‘Lucuna realizes that losing the memory of his
cooperation’s’ which has “perfected X-love is akin to losing her all over
a safe, effective technique for again, forever and during her erasure
the focused erasure of troubling is forced to relive the beauty of
memories.”25 In their press release their relationship together, through
they state “Why remember a destructive this exquisite agony, he exclaims
love affair?...[when] in a matter “please let me keep this memory, just
of hours our patented, non-surgical this one!”24
procedure will rid you of painful
memories and allow you a new and By the time Alexander Pope is quoted,
lasting piece of mind.”25 The film near the end of the film, by an
centres around a couple who have employee of Lucuna, who is intoxicated
broken up and end up using ‘this’
73 74
and flirting with a married man: and ‘wishing’ is why I choose to root
my research within personal experience
and user narrative. As an individual I
“How happy is the am inescapably a “part … and … product
blameless Vestal’s lot! of [my own] environment … affected by
… culture.”26
The world forgetting,
“Since one cannot have direct control
by the world forgot. over ones social environment, one
Eternal sunshine of the becomes a part of that environment and
learns behaviours from the culture of
spotless mind! Each the social environment.”26 Therefore I
must conclude that if I do not use the
pray’r accepted, and experience I have gained by ‘living,’
each wish resign’d,”24 what hope do I have of designing
anything other then a ‘wish’?

This quote begins to sound almost However as a designer one must also go
tongue in cheek and the title “Eternal beyond personal and user experience.
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”24 One must refer to imagination and
transforms into an ironic ‘wish.’ think not just of today and what is
Which as with most wishes leads not happening to us now but to extrapolate
to ‘eternal peace’ but to receiving and envision how scenarios, products
‘exactly what you asked for’ which is and cultures will evolve.
in this case;
“There is a whole side to the
technical tendency involving the
ignorance, emptiness construction of the universe itself…
and absence. next to the biological convergence,
there is a technical convergence.”27
This is my worry when considering I hope to use what I have learnt
‘how’ to design for the digital within my research to direct my own
landscape, which has become so easy “technical convergence” and create
to use and manipulate. I wonder when designs that both influence and use
we, as a race, will stop ‘wishing’ for the “convergence” of contemporary
things. This concept of ‘easy change’ society.

75 76
References: [8] Walter, T (1999) The Mourning for
Diana, Berg.
[1] Shirkey. C (2008) Here Comes
[9] Walter, T (Sept 2008) The Presence
Everybody, Penguin Books Ltd.
of the Dead in Society, Death
&Dying in 18-21c Europe, Romania.
[2] S. Pitsillides, S. Katsikides,
M. Conreen (2009) Digital Death,
[10] Boyd, D. M. Elliso, N. B. (2007)
IFIP WG9.5 “Virtuality and
Social Network Sites: Definition,
Society” International
History, and Scholarship. Journal
Workshop on Images of Virtuality:
of Computer-Mediated
Conceptualizations and
Communication, 13(1), article 11.
Applications in Everyday Life,
Athens, Greece.
[11] Whitechapel Gallery (October
2009-January 2010) www.
[4] Roberts, P (2006) From My Space
to-strangers. Sophie Calle:
to Our Space: The Functions of Web
Talking to Strangers.
Memorials in Berievement, The
Forum: Association for Death
[12] Mayer-Schonberger, V (2009)
Education and Counseling, Volume
Delete - The Virtue of Forgetting
32, Issue 4
in the Digital Age, Princeton
University Press.
[5] Farrell, D (2001) Innocent
Landscapes, originally exhibited
[13] From Wikipedia, (updated 11
in Actes Sud
January 2010 at 19:43) http://
[6] Notes from conversation with
Francesco d’orazio (14th Oct 2009,
[14] Gajadhar, J. Green, J (2005)
6pm) Founder of Myrl,
The Importance of Nonverbal
Elements in Online Chat. www.
[7] Hadjikos, P. Psychoanalytic EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/
Psychotherapist (2009) A Short
Guide to Effectively Dealing with
Complicated Grief and Bereavement.
[15] Fahlman, S (1982) Original Bboard [23] Niam, O (2004) The Final Cut,
Thread in which :-) was proposed. Lions Gate Entertainment (Audio Visual)
[24] Kaufman, C (2004) Eternal
[16] Dreyfus. H, Spinosa. C (1997) Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,
Highway Bridges and Feasts: Focus Features (audio visual)
Heidegger and Borgmann on How to
Affirm Technology, After [25] Lacuna Inc © (2003) http://www.
Postmodernism Conference.

[17] Derrida, J (1996) Archive Fever, [26] Kominkiewicz. F, B (2006)

The University of Chicago Press. Heideggerian existentialism and
social work practice with death
[18] Barthes, R (1981) Camera Lucida, and survivor bereavement, The
Hill and Wang Social Science Journal 43 p 47 –
54. Saint Mary’s College, Notre
[19] Statement from Palliative Care Dame, USA.
Nurse (Friday, April 17, 2009)
[27] Stiegler, B (1994) Technics and
[20] Bush, V (July 1945) As We May Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus,
Think. The Atlantic Online. Stanford University Press.

[21] Gruber, M (Nov 1993) Wired: Issue

1.05. Digital Archaeology

[22] Microsoft Cooperation (2010)

MyLifeBits. http://research.

You might also like